By Howard S. Levie

An armistice is not a peace treaty. While its main objective is to bring about a cease-fire, a halt to hostilities, that halt may be indefinite or for a specified period of time only. An armistice agreement does not terminate the state of war between the belligerents. A state of war continues to exist with all of its implications for the belligerents and for the neutrals. (The Korean Armistice Agreement did not specify a time period—and thus was subject to termination by either party. North Korea in fact, denounced it in 1997.)

In time past, brief, local cease-fire agreements frequently were used for the purpose of removing the dead and the wounded from the battlefield.  In recent decades the armistice agreement has gained in importance because in a majority of cases it has not been succeeded by a treaty of peace as was formerly the almost universal custom, but remains as the only agreement entered into by the hostile nations bringing hostilities to an end.

The U.S. Army’s “The Law of Land Warfare,” issued in 1956, defines armistice and the subjects that it should cover. “An armistice (or truce, as it is sometimes called) is the cessation of active hostilities for a period agreed upon by the belligerents. It is not a partial or temporary peace; it is only the suspension of military operations to the extent agreed upon by the parties.”

Of course, the parties may also include such provisions as they may desire and agree upon; it is extremely rare that armistice agreements impose obligations to address violations of the laws of armed conflict.

Effective Date and Time: It is particularly important to allow time for the information to reach outposts that would otherwise unwittingly violate the armistice agreement by continuing hostilities after it had become effective. Even in an era of instant communications, not every soldier or group of soldiers will be equipped to receive the information immediately.

Duration: In former days it was customary (but not required) to specify the length of time that the armistice agreement was to remain in force. In modern times such a provision has frequently been omitted, probably on the assumption that a peace treaty will be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future. When an armistice agreement contains no specific period of duration it remains in effect until formally denounced by one side. While there is no law requiring it, certainly it should be expected that the denunciation will be announced as becoming effective only after a specified period of time or at a specified future time, and not by the arrival of an artillery bombardment!

Line of Demarcation and Neutral Zone: While there is no specific provision in any convention on the law of war providing for a demarcation line and a neutral zone (the latter sometimes referred to as “no-man’s land”), inclusion of these items will go far in preventing incidents that neither side really wants and which can inadvertently and unintentionally result in the resumption of hostilities.

Relations with Inhabitants: In almost every armistice one side will be occupying some of the territory of the other side. This means that there will be enemy civilians in part of the territory it controls. The U.S. Army’s Land Warfare Manual states that if there is no provision on this subject in the armistice agreement these relations remain unchanged, each belligerent “continuing to exercise the same rights as before, including the right to prevent or control all intercourse between the inhabitants within his lines and persons within the enemy lines.”

Prohibited Acts: Rarely do armistice agreements prohibit specific acts by the belligerents other than the basic act of hostilities; and rarely is any action taken by the other belligerent when the opposing force has taken an action that it believes to be prohibited. However, any violation of the armistice agreement, including any hostile act, would certainly fall within the definition of being a “prohibited act.” Although not specifically set forth in the Korean Armistice Agreement, certainly the frequent violations of the demilitarized zone by the North Koreans, the construction of tunnels under that zone, and the landing of commandos in South Korea, with such missions as to assassinate the president of the Republic of Korea, are prohibited acts.

Prisoners of War: This was the most difficult problem that confronted the negotiators during the negotiation of the Korean Armistice Agreement, and its solution took well over a year. The United Nations Command insisted on “voluntary repatriation,” which meant that the prisoner of war was free to return to the army in which he was serving when captured, or to go elsewhere if he preferred. This was primarily because while the North Koreans occupied most of South Korea early in the conflict, they conscripted into their army all South Koreans of military age who had been captured or had surrendered. These men had no desire to be “repatriated” to North Korea. “Voluntary repatriation” is now accepted international law and a provision to that effect will undoubtedly be found in future armistice agreements.

Consultative Machinery: Provisions of the Korean Armistice Agreement furnish a good example of the commissions set up by armistice agreements. There was a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission to oversee the armistice with respect to prisoners of war; a Military Armistice Commission (with joint observer teams) to oversee the implementation of the armistice itself; and a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (with its own inspection teams) to ensure compliance with certain of the provisions of the armistice agreement.

Miscellaneous Political-Military Matters: There are times when the negotiators of an armistice agreement are authorized by their governments to discuss political matters. (At times, governments have used diplomats in armistice negotiations. The Korean Armistice Agreement, for example, was negotiated by military officers, while the Agreement for the Cessation of Hostilities in Vietnam was negotiated by diplomats.) Thus, while the United Nations Command Delegation insisted that it could discuss military matters and not political matters, Article 4 of the Korean Armistice Agreement contained a provision by which the military commanders recommended to the governments that within three months of signing the Parties convene a political conference to settle certain questions beyond the authority of the military commanders.

In recent decades the armistice agreement has gained in importance as an international agreement because of the fact that in a majority of cases it has not been succeeded by a treaty of peace as was formerly the most universal custom, but remains as the only agreement entered into by the hostile nations bringing hostilities to an end.

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